Saturday, June 20, 2009

Jeffry P. Lindsay
"Don’t Let The Teamsters Onto The Off-White Carpet"

I have this really great famous saying in my head that I want to start with today. The problem is that everything in my head this morning is under a very thick layer of sludge, because I was awake all night. But the famous saying goes something like this: "Anybody who wants to be president should automatically be disqualified from holding the office." Another problem is that I forgot who said this. I think it was either Mark Twain or Groucho Marx, and because my head is filled with sludge right now I am having a hard time telling them apart. I remember they both had big bushy mustaches and smoked cigars, and they both said very funny things. I am pretty sure that Mark Twain never tried to kiss Margaret Dumont, but that’s the only difference I can think of right now and I might be wrong.

But this column is not about presidential politics. Although after this last election I think the same saying should apply: Anyone who actually wants to write about that stuff should be automatically forced to kiss Margaret Dumont, or whatever it was. I forget; like I said, my head is filled with sludge right now. The real point is that this great saying by Mark Twain or Groucho Marx – or maybe it was Frank Zappa, he had a mustache – this wonderful wise saying really and truly ought to apply to kids, too. Anybody who wants them obviously either doesn’t know what they’re in for or if they do and they want ‘em anyway, they’re mentally incompetent to raise anything more complicated than maybe a few one-celled bacteria in the grout around the bath tub.

No, when you think about having kids you must always remember that great Latin motto; "In loco parentis." Which means, you have to be crazy to be a parent. And it’s in Latin, which really ought to count for something, because the Latins were very smart people. After all, they could speak Latin.

Just one small example of loco parentis is seen in our house. The people we bought it from had kids, and yet they installed off-white wall-to-wall carpet all over the house. Is this the act of a sane and rational parent? I don’t think so. There is no way kids and white carpet can live together in harmony. And to really get down to the point, the most recent example of this obvious truth came last night at around 11:30 when Pookie, my four year-old, came to the door of our bedroom, announced that she didn’t feel very well, and then almost immediately did something that can only be described as volcanic.

My first thought was that standing behind her there had to be a group of very large Teamsters coming in from a long night of eating donuts with meat sauce, because what Pookie spewed onto the carpet was about eight times bigger than she is.

This was not the first time something like this has happened. Of course, if you have kids you don’t need to be told this, since I already mentioned that we have off-white carpet and disaster is almost automatic with off-white carpet. It is now a good deal more off than white, mostly from every day stuff like feet dipped in chocolate, and spilled orange soda, and spaghetti fights and the incontinent dog. But strangely enough, no more than three feet from where Pookie threw up, her sister Bear threw up a few years ago, and now we have two huge matching stains. Even more amazing is that these two huge stains are almost the same shape and color. And although I think I know most of what my kids eat, nothing I have ever fed them is that exact color of radioactive orange. I can only assume that we have a toxic waste dump somewhere on the property and they both drop by there for snacks from time to time.

But this isn’t the crazy part, of course. Kids getting sick is normal, and if you have off-white carpet, it is normal for them to stand on it when they throw up. No, the crazy part is what I did next. Now, a sane and normal person, a rational person without kids, would simply wake up his wife so the mess would get cleaned up before it ate through the floor and entered the aquifer.
Instead, I immediately assumed that Pookie had swallowed some botulism toxin, and I rushed her into the bathroom to give her all the home remedies I could think of – Tums, kid’s aspirin, ginger ale and a banana – until finally my wife heard Pookie shouting to leave her alone, she didn’t want anything, and so my wife came in and led me away by the hand.

I spent the rest of the night sneaking into Pookie’s bedroom to make sure she was still alive. Every six or seven minutes I would tip-toe in and check her pulse, respiration and temperature, making extra sure that her head hadn’t exploded, and that she was still free of leprosy.
I finally fell asleep around 6, and at 6:30 I heard a huge racket and went staggering out into the hall, the sludge slowly trickling up into my brain. And I stood between the two giant orange stains, Bear’s on the left and Pookie’s on the right, and looked into the living room, where Pookie was jumping up and down on the couch, completely recovered. "Dad," she said happily. "I might still be sick."

"Aim for the blank spot," I said. I pointed to the place on the very-far- off-white carpet. It really did look blank. And just to show you how loco I am as a parentis, I started to think that maybe we should have one more kid. Because with just one more big orange stain, the carpet would start to look like it had an intentional pattern on it. And then we would have a much more valuable house, with, as Mark Twain once said, "all the modern inconveniences. "

Or was it Margaret Dumont?


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Jeffry P. Lindsay
"Lassie Sleeps With The Fishes, But I Have Insomnia"

If I have learned anything at all in my life, I have learned one thing. Well, actually two things, since I have also learned that a bulldozer always has the right of way, but that has nothing to do with what we're talking about today. No, what I have learned is this. None of us are immune from tragedy. No matter how smart or rich or important we are, no matter how often we go the gym or give money to the church, tragedy can strike any of us at any time. Even if we are a small and innocent goldfish named Lassie.

And more to the point, when we actually are a small goldfish named Lassie and tragedy strikes us, it is also a tragedy for others -- especially a small, curly-haired, hyperactive girl named Pookie who loves Lassie so much it's almost scary. And naturally enough, that means a crisis for Pookie's Dad -- me.

According to the Top Secret Handbook For Fathers, a very valuable book that has guided me through every family emergency so far, there are two basic responses to the Dead Pet Syndrome, or DPS as we call it. The first is simple: sit the kid down and say, "Sorry, kid, your pet is dead," and then deal with consequences -- which the Handbook warns may include contusions, abrasions, loss of income and ruptured eardrums. This method is brutal, and may seem hard on the kid, but it is honest, direct, and helps teach your child about the harsh and sometimes fatal nature of reality.

The second method for dealing with DPS is a little easier on you, at least at first. It is recommended for younger children, and also for children who hit really hard when they are upset. In this method, you hide the dead pet from the child and quickly replace it with a live one that looks as much as possible like the dead pet, except it should have more movement. The part about looking like the old one is very important, since replacing a goldfish with a hamster will probably not fool anyone, even a four year-old, unless you are a really fast talker.

Both of those methods have much to recommend them. And I would love to tell you which one I think is best. But if you read this column regularly you may have noticed that I try not to give advice too often. That is partly because I don't like to sound preachy, or pretend that I know all the answers. It is also partly because if I have learned anything from the experience of having two kids it is that I don't really know anything, and I am generally so tired and flustered from dealing with them that I am in no position to give anybody advice on anything.

However, I feel very confident about giving out one very clear piece of advice, and it is this: If you live in Florida and it is a hot day, do not put your daughter's dead goldfish into a plastic bag on the front seat of the car and then get stuck in traffic on the way to the pet store to replace the fish with one just like it before your daughter comes home and discovers that her beloved pet is bloated and floating belly up. Especially if it turns out that the plastic bag has holes in it because somebody has been experimenting with finding out what scissors can do. I really feel very good about this advice, and I know I know I am right.

And if this was an advice column, I would now tell you how to get the smell of dead sun-baked goldfish out of automobile upholstery. But this is not an advice column, and anyway I haven't figured that part out yet. So I will stick to saying, don't try this. And for the time being, don't accept a ride in my car. Believe me on this one, this is good advice.

Unfortunately, there are parts of this otherwise great advice I am not so confident about. First, the replacement method is actually a Great Big Fib, the kind we warn our kids not to do because it can lead to jail or a life of selling insurance. And because I am a New Age All-Things-Are-One-So-Eat-Your-Broccoli kind of Dad, I have never been comfortable with lying to my kids, even for their own good. When T.L. Bear's turtle ran away a few years back, I told her what had happened and we talked about whether she wanted a new one, or something else. She said she wanted a pony instead, which I pointed out was a pretty big trade-up from a turtle. She told me that her grief and mental suffering ought to be worth something, and a pony would be a big step on the road to seeing her smile again. I told her that was fine if she would clean up after the pony, and before she agreed to that she needed to imagine cleaning up after her dog if he was 100 times bigger and got into Grandma's chocolate box every day. Her eyes got very big, and we compromised on a hamster. I fully realize that in another five years I won't get away with that, and I hope Harvard Law School can smooth her out a little before then.

But anyway, that was Bear and her turtle, and this was Pookie and a fish. And this time I decided to go the other way, for three good reasons. First, all kids are different and Pookie, at 4, seemed more likely to be devastated by a dead fish than her sister was at 8 when the turtle ran away. My second reason was that I am now smart enough to know that I don't know anything. And finally, and most important, my wife decided that this was what I wanted to do, so I did it.
So there I was in traffic with a fish decomposing on the front seat of my car. And I have to say that it is moments like these that give Fatherhood the surreal glow I have come to enjoy most about the job.

I finally did get all the way to the pet store, and here's another tip you might not have known: if you want really fast service in a store, hold up a leaking bag that contains a warm, decomposing fish. I guarantee that the clerks will find time for you right away, even if they are on the phone or doing their nails.

I got New Lassie home safely, since Pookie hadn't been through the pet store's plastic bags with her scissors. And a week later, New Lassie is doing fine, and if Pookie has noticed any difference she hasn't said. So the fish is fine, Pookie is happy, and that should be a happy ending.
Except that I still feel guilty about the whole thing.

Which puts me in the very strange position of feeling bad because my daughter's pet is alive.


Saturday, June 6, 2009

Jeffry P. Lindsay
"If You Eat Enough Broccoli, The Cops Leave You Alone"

Someone in my household got a speeding ticket this week. I promised my wife I would not say who this person was, so I will only say that it wasn’t me and the kids don’t drive. And in spite of the fact that there are many good reasons to keep this kind of thing private, I thought I should write about it today because there are also several good reasons to discuss a speeding ticket in print. First of all, most kids have very complicated responses to their various encounters with members of the law enforcement community, and if I can help these kids arrive at a clear understanding of the issues by devoting a column to the subject I feel this is time and ink well spent. And second, by writing about this speeding ticket, it is now tax deductible.

Furthermore, we can now say we weren’t actually speeding – we were doing research. And if I can make enough people believe this, I can qualify for a high-paying job in Washington, DC.

But the important part of this ticket that I did not get – I mean, research that we shrewdly performed for the good of the public and nice tax write-off – the important part, I say, is the effect it had on our kids.

All children have very complicated feelings about policemen. In the first place, they are told that if they are ever lost or in trouble they must immediately find someone in a police uniform and tell him or her that they are lost. And the police person will help them, and even keep away bad guys. In the second place, in many households the police have become bogey men who will throw you in a dark hole full of spiders and TV with no cable if you do not eat your broccoli. And since most children can’t shake the feeling that all cops somehow know what they really did with their vegetables, their feelings towards those in blue uniforms are in a kind of delicate balance between guilt and awe.

These perfectly natural feelings are further complicated at our house, since we have some very good friends who are cops, which means that our kids have seen some of these cops late at night after some very successful dinner parties, and nothing we can say now will convince our children that the bad guys are really in any danger.

But we have tried to say all the right things to our kids about law enforcement personnel, with only one or two minor slips along the way like the thing with broccoli. And in general we thought our kids were responding pretty well. They almost always cheer for the cops in movies, and they have always been enthusiastic at the sight of some naughty speeder pulled off on the side of the road and getting a ticket.

Until today.

Now, I will stand by my promise not to tell you who was driving, but I was in the passenger seat in preparation for being dropped off at the gym.

And when I heard the siren behind me, my first thought was that it was one of my kids. So I turned around to yell at them to stop making those awful sounds, saw the cop behind us, and my second thought was, "Uh-oh."

One of us, whoever was driving, said a bad word and pulled onto the side of the road. I looked at the girls in the back seat. I was not worried about T.L. Bear, of course. At eleven years old, she is too sophisticated and experienced to be frightened by a speeding ticket. And sure enough, she sat there quietly, eyes as big as dinner plates, nonchalantly gasping for breath and chewing her way through one of the straps of her book bag.

Pookie, only five years old, was already standing on the seat, ready for combat, her teddy bear held up like a baseball bat.

The officer approached our car. A second cop stood behind him, a badge that read, "Training Officer," pinned to his shirt. So the man writing us a ticket was in training, which probably meant he would be a little more nervous than somebody who had been doing this for a while. It suddenly seemed like a good idea to keep my kids from acting like – well, acting like themselves, to be honest.

"Stay quiet, kids," I said.

"License and registration, please," the cop said.

"Are you going to put us in jail?" Pookie asked.

The cop smiled. "No, honey," he said. "Not if you’re good."

This was apparently the wrong thing to say, because Pookie immediately yelled, "My daddy has a GUN!"

"No I don’t," I protested.

"You SAID you did!"

"Yes, but I meant at home –"

"Shut up, he’ll kill us!" screamed Bear suddenly. And she tried to crawl out the window, screaming, "Don’t shoot!"

I got her back in her seat, which is harder than it sounds since I was also trying to hold Pookie back at the same time, and she was swinging wildly with her teddy bear. As she clocked me on the nose with the stuffed animal, I looked up to see the cop standing at the window, his mouth hanging open. But at least he wasn’t reaching for his gun. "Uh – license and registration?" he said. And both girls suddenly sat down and began to cry.

While I thought this was pretty good practice for when they were old enough to drive, it was too much for the officer in training. His lower lip began to quiver, and he backed away from our car trying to hide a sob.

So the training officer had to write our ticket, and one of us, whoever was driving, is driving much slower now.

Which is fine with the kids. They have learned a great deal from their run-in with the law, and they don’t want to repeat the experience.

They’re getting very tired of eating all that broccoli.